Readings: A Brief History of American Sports

The Police Gazette very clearly got awesomer with age.

Over the weekend, I made a case for a way of discussing books in a manner conducive to NotGraphs. You can read those exact words, if you want. Alternatively, you can just believe me when I say that the basic idea is to share lightly annotated passages and ideas from interesting baseball-related books.

A Brief History of American Sports by Elliot J. Gorn and Warren Goldstein

Whether factually accurate or not, it’s nevertheless pleasant to believe that Dr. Hans Asperger — credited with identifying what we now call Asperger Syndrome — that he, in fact, exhibited symptoms of the very same Syndrome that he discovered. Again, ignoring what I’ll call the “actual details” of the matter, Dr. Asperger’s case gives us a nice figure or archetype with which to work — namely, that of a man whose life’s work is more or less the product of attempting to diagnose his own peculiar condition.

Nor, reader, do I believe I’m misbehaving when I suggest that we, all of us, are doctors in this way — not to the extent, probably, of Asperger himself, but at least in the sense that our fumbling attempts to understand our own unique conditions often define and inform the work that we eventually produce.

If you’ll pardon a brief autobiographical flight, I’ll say now that, for me, one condition I’ve sought constantly to understand is my relationship — or lack thereof — with the Boston Red Sox. Growing up in New England, I was a de facto Sox fan from birth. Later, around the time of Pedro Martinez’s arrival in Boston, my fandom approached a level that I’ll describe as Very Zealous. Said zeal continued through 2004, reaching previously unknown heights of euphoria with the playoff run of 2004.

After that, however, my fandom — mysteriously, to me — never returned. When play began in April of 2005, I found that, instead of the hometown team, my zeal had spread to baseball, generally, and to well-run teams, specifically.

The Case of the Disappearing Team Allegiance has informed a great deal of my desire to write about baseball, I think. And it’s Gorn and Goldstein who’ve provided me with a small insight as to why that might be.

Treating the emergence of sport-as-spectacle in the late-19th century, the pair discusses the important role played by Richard Kyle Fox and the National Police Gazette — i.e. the newspaper that more or less defined sporting coverage in its era.

About the Gazette and its editor, Gorn and Goldstein write:

Fox’s great circulation breakthrough came with the Paddy Ryan-Joe Goss fight of May 30, 1880. Metropolitan newspapers gave the battle little attention, assuming that in an era of fixed fights and mediocre pugilists, the public had lost all interest in the ring. Goss’s age and Ryan’s inexperience resulted in a tepid match, but the Police Gazette presses ran for weeks, printing 400,000 copies of the fight edition to satisfy an insatiable national demand. Sports editor William Edgar Harding’s prose and the excellent sketches by a team of artists provided the nation’s only full coverage of the event. The Gazette‘s vivd descriptions and graphic illustrations took readers ringside as no publication ever had.

While this early success was unexpected, Richard Fox knew a good thing when he saw it. Rather than wait for spectacles to occur, he spent money lavishly over the next two decades promoting a variety of sporting contests from long-distance running to drink mixing, from bicycle racing to haircutting, from ratting to water guzzling… To ensure the best possible coverage, Fox hired some of America’s finest journalists, most of whom took pen names when writing for him. A staff of artists brought sporting action home with bold illustrations, and by the nineties, photographs became a regular Gazette feature. All of Fox’s innovations were done in the name of profit, and sales of the “Barber’s Bible” more than made up his costs (115-117).

Though this passage addresses boxing specifically, what we learn from it can apply to sport broadly — namely in that, less than the act of watching, it’s the discussion and literature of sport the define how we interact with the game.

And here’s where the epiphany enters for yours truly. For, if the Gazette‘s crack squad of journalists was able to eulogize sport ably, the Boston Globe‘s sports section — and, specifically, one Dan Shaughnessy — has aided in making the hometown team inaccessible, even ugly.

Shaughnessy’s single narrative mode — what we might call the Everlasting Grouse — made sense for the pre-World Champion Red Sox, who turned failure into an art form. But the 2004 season confirmed what, at the time, seemed a likely possibility already — namely, that the narrative of the John Henry- and Theo Epstein-led Red Sox would be dramatically different than the one used to treat their predecessors. Over the last seven or so years, the Red Sox have become one of Baseball’s most conspicuously able teams. This isn’t to say that all of their decisions have been flawless — certainly anyone who watched Julio Lugo play will feel this acutely — but rather that the front office is attempting always to make smart decisions using quality information and analysis.

While it’s possible that Shaughnessy would acknowledge this in private, it’s had no effect on his editorializing. This past April, for instance, saw Shaughnessy second-guessing Epsetin and Co. for allowing defensive metrics to influence their pursuit of free agents Adrian Beltre and Mike Cameron. Nor is it the case that we readers require Shaughnessy to embrace entirely the world of advanced stats; rather, it’s that his reluctance to acknowledge the team’s accomplishment continues to make his screeds unreadable and — in my case, at least — the experience of the team less palatable.

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Carson Cistulli has just published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.

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Padman Jones

The quality of writing and interest in sabermetrics were (at least, in my mind) increasing around that time. It got easier to develop an interest in players whose talents were becoming more quantifiable and to read stuff by talented writers passionate about every team.

Which is, I guess, the rosy side of discussing the inertia imparted in fans by writing — i.e. good writing draws people in more than bad writing drives them away.